10 years on, families of Sewol tragedy victims fight for answers


File photo of maritime police searching for missing passengers in front of the South Korean ferry 'Sewol' which sank off Jindo April 16, 2014. - Reuters

SEOUL: Every April, as the streets of South Korea are carpeted with the delicate pink petals of falling cherry blossoms, Kim Soon-sil feels an unbearable sadness.

The pink flowers remind her of her daily routine 10 years ago, when she would walk her 17-year-old daughter Jin Yun-hee home from school and they would chat about the latter’s day at school.

It was on such a spring day on April 16, 2014, that Kim lost Yun-hee in the Sewol ferry tragedy, in which 304 out of 476 passengers and crew died when the vessel capsized off Jindo island in the country’s south-west.

Most of the victims were Yun-hee’s schoolmates from Danwon High School in Ansan city, who were on a school trip to the resort island of Jeju. The students were instructed to stay put in their cabins as the ferry was sinking, and they died waiting for the rescue that never came.

Ten years on, family members of the Sewol victims like Madam Kim are still grieving for the lost children. They want answers and are pushing for a formal apology from the government before time fades memories.

Kim Jong-gi, whose 18-year-old daughter was among the victims, told foreign media at a press conference on April 15: “We are worried about the Sewol ferry memories being erased before the truth is revealed.”

His daughter Kim Soo-jin was the youngest of three girls, the prettiest and the most precious, he said.

“I feel sorry for my daughter that she had only 18 short years to live. Ten years after the tragedy and disaster, sometimes I see other children or her friends living their lives as young adults. I feel a little jealous and envious of how they are continuing to live their lives.”

Results of investigations, released in 2018, failed to determine the cause of the sinking, although factors such as illegal modifications to the vessel, overloading of cargo by three times the limit and human error likely contributed to the sinking, according to the probe.

The ferry’s captain, who had deserted the vessel during the sinking, is serving life imprisonment while 14 other crew members got prison terms of up to 12 years for their parts in the disaster.

Public anger over the botched rescue mission also led to Korean coast guard officers being charged with mishandling of the rescue bid. Only one commander has been convicted so far while former coast guard chief Kim Suk-kyoon was acquitted in November 2023.

Kim Jong-gi, an active member of the Sewol families group, is demanding the release of classified information, including sealed records from then President Park Geun-hye’s time in office, which under Korean law can be kept secret for up to 30 years.

President Park was uncontactable when news of the ferry disaster broke, and she did not address the nation until seven hours later.

There were accusations at that time that the timelines of the tragedy were modified to make her hours-long absence less obvious.

The tragedy is considered one of the contributing factors leading to her impeachment in 2017.

“The state still refuses to acknowledge responsibility and is busy hiding the truth, and social disasters and tragedies such as the October 29, 2022 Itaewon disaster are still recurring. We will continue to seek the truth, to hold those accountable responsible and create a safe society, ” said Kim.

In the Itaewon incident, a crowd crush during Halloween festivities killed 159 people, most of them young.

The 59-year-old said that he was at a complete loss for words when he read in the news about the Itaewon incident because it showed that the government was still lacking in disaster preventive measures, and had not learnt from the painful lessons of the Sewol ferry sinking.

Kim is calling for current President Yoon Suk-yeol to recognise responsibility for both the Sewol and Itaewon disasters, to formally apologise and to promise to prevent further such disasters.

Yoon had riled many when he exercised his presidential veto in January to block a Bill that sought an independent inquiry into the crowd crush.

His administration has come under much criticism for failing to prevent the incident and for handling the rescue operations badly.

South Korea’s public broadcaster KBS was originally slated to broadcast a Sewol 10th anniversary documentary that re-examines the tragedy and survivors’ struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on April 18, but scrapped the plan for fear that it “could affect the general election” which took place on April 10.

It later said that the documentary would be remade into a series featuring PTSD cases of other tragedies as well, and is set to air in the second half of the year.

The crushing defeat of the ruling party at the polls is an indication of the public opinion against Yoon, said Kim.

“What we want is for President Yoon to review the results of the general election, a review of his past two years in office, and to start prioritising the things that he has put on the backburner, like disaster prevention.”

He added that Yoon’s veto of the special investigation Bill for the Itaewon tragedy was akin to a repeat of the mistakes of former president Park’s administration. “The march towards truth should not be stopped,” said Kim.

While there were initial concerns that the more recent Itaewon disaster might overtake people’s memories of the Sewol tragedy, it has in fact given the Sewol families renewed energy in their quest for truth and accountability, the family members say.

Lee Tae-ho, who chairs the April 16 Coalition on the Sewol Ferry Disaster, told reporters: “We did think that perhaps our voices and the whole ferry tragedy will be put on the back burner after Itaewon as memories would be fresher on people’s minds.

However, as time went by, we soon found out that like us, the bereaved family members of the Itaewon tragedy are also working for the same goals of finding out the truth and seeking the creation of a safe society for all.”

Kim acknowledges that it is a challenge to remain in the public’s memories in the decade that has passed since the Sewol ferry sinking.

He estimates that only 25 per cent of Sewol family members are active in the group which was set up 10 years ago. Most of them left because of physical exhaustion, financial difficulties and family issues, he said.

“But even if there is only one person left in the group, we will continue to fight for the disclosure of the truth and to build a safer society for everyone.” - The Straits Times/ANN

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